Malawai: growing discontent over censorship and suppression of opposition

President Bingu wa Mutharika in Malawai is facing growing criticism for authoritarianism,  from both internal and external critics. He has been accused of trampling on democratic freedoms, human rights abuses and presiding over the collapse of Malawi’s economy by the donor community. On 15 March 2012 the Public Affairs Committee (PAC), a Malawian religious rights group, called for the resignation of the president,  or for a referendum for the president.   Unless the president complies  within 90 days he will face ‘civil disobedience’ charges.

Mutharika, a former World Bank economist, is seen as becoming increasingly autocratic and his disagreements with the West over politics and economic policy have left the country without critical external aid from donors and the International Monetary Fund. Several major donors, including the UK, cut their aid in 2011 over concerns about the infringement of democratic freedoms, economic management and governance. Nearly three-quarters of Malawi’s population of 15.4 million people live on less than $1 (60 pence)  a day. Mutharika has accused Western donors of funding an opposition protest movement that is challenging his regime.

This recent criticism comes from the powerful Church lobby, The Public Affairs Committee. The PAC’s call  is the latest in a series of ultimatums for Mutharika to step down.  The leaders of Malawi’s main churches, which have considerable standing and influence in the country, dominate the 20-year-old PAC. The PAC was instrumental in forcing the Malawi Congress Party to move Malawi from a one-party dictatorship to plural politics in the 1990s.

Mutharika’s regime has in the past demonstrated eagerness to use  country’s security forces to thwart popular demonstrations and disrupt opposition rallies. Newspapers are being targeted and articles deemed “contrary to public interest” are being censored by Mr Mutharika’s government. Famously in May last year, when he sacked government minister Joyce Banda, Mutharika pronounced: “When God noted that Lucifer was being big-headed, he did not hesitate to evict him from the heavenly government. I am not the first to fire someone, it started in heaven. So before you start faulting me for being intolerant because I have sacked Joyce Banda from DPP, fault God for sacking Lucifer from heaven.”

On Sunday  (March 18 2012) the police tear-gassed and assaulted opposition supporters as opposition presidential aspirant Atupele Muluzi, tried to address a gathering. He was later arrested, and riots continued in Lilongwe. Angry Malawians responded by attacking a police station, beating up officers and looting their houses.

In July last year, 19 people were killed in a police crackdown to quell protests over deteriorating political and economic conditions. There has been arbitrary arrest of prominent anti-government activists such as John Kapito, chairs of the state-funded Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) and former attorney general, lawyer cum human rights campaigner, Ralph Kasambara.

Students in May 2011 were tear gassed and several lecturers at Chancellor College in Zomba were  dismissed following an unsavoury stand-off between academics and the police. The row started because Peter Mukhito,  the Inspector General of the Police, quizzed a political studies lecturer, Blessings Chitinga over his discussions of the Arab Springs Revolts. “